St. Pete launches program aimed at preventing 'vicious cycle' of teen crime

City leaders in St. Pete on Monday announced a new program that’s goal is to stop the cycle of crime among teens.

It’s called the Youth Care Program and it’s a partnership between the city and the St. Petersburg Police Department. Police Chief Anthony Holloway and Mayor Ken Welch said early intervention will help redirect at-risk teens.

"The Youth Care Program is designed to break the cycle of crime among our young residents through early intervention and comprehensive support," Welch said.

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Within 72 hours of officers arresting a teen for a non-violent crime, they connect the teen and his or her family to resources in the community. Officers give the teen’s name to the city’s new Community Impact and Safety Liaison, Lisa Wheeler-Bowman.

She reaches out to the family to figure out what they need to create a supportive environment. The teens and their families are given personalized care that can include counseling, educational opportunities, family therapy and financial assistance.

"There’s no one in the room that can say he never made a mistake in life," Chief Holloway said. "That child could have probably made a mistake one time going out with his or her friend and say, ‘hey, let's steal a car. Let's do this.’ You got caught. Now, Ms. Bowman's going to help you. Now, bring all these resources together."

Wheeler-Bowman’s son, 21-year-old Cabbretti Wheeler, was murdered in 2008. She said she has made it her life’s mission to make sure no other parent feels that pain.

"If I can reach one [teen], I know that I've done my job," she said. "My heart is in this. It has been in this ever since I have been out there hitting the streets trying to find out who murdered my son. So, when I see youth, I don't even have to know them, I will approach them and just say, ‘hey. What's going on? You know, let's talk,’" she said. "They want somebody to listen, and sometimes it's not easy to talk to your parents or your loved ones, so let that be me."

Holloway used the example of a 16-year-old who has 44 charges against him right now. He said he started off breaking into cars and now has a gun-related charge.

"There's nothing wrong with the court system because the court system worked the way it works. But, by the time the court system starts to address this problem, this young man now has 44 charges, and what this program is going to do is hopefully intervene and stop this," Holloway said.

Holloway said they’ve seen a 35 percent drop in auto thefts in the first quarter of the year, one of the crimes that would fall under the program. However, he said they can’t arrest their way out of it.

"This past weekend, I can tell you it is still a problem. We arrested two 13-year-olds for stealing cars. So, what this program is going to do is we're going to go upstream a little bit. We're going to go upstream to figure out what can we do to stop these young kids from stealing cars," Holloway said.

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"If the children out there keep committing these crimes, we’re just having a vicious cycle," Holloway said.

The mayor and the police chief said community members have told them they weren’t aware of resources in the community. They said the Youth Care Program will change that. 

"There's a need in the community. Folks don't understand the resources, and a lot of parents and grandparents are overwhelmed. This will fill that gap in a personal, one-on-one way with someone in Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, who has exemplary street connections in our community to help some of these parents who are really overwhelmed," Welch said.

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It’s not a diversion program. Teens will still face charges in court. However, Wheeler-Bowman said they want to give teens options with a goal in mind.

"To save a child, you know, to prevent a family from feeling what I felt and to let children know that they have choices and it doesn't have to be the wrong choice," she said.

It’s a voluntary program. Starting this Friday, the program is also hosting Safe Summer Fridays every other Friday at Lake Vista Recreation Center at 1401 62nd Avenue South from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Parents sign their kids in, and they have several activities for them, like basketball, a movie night and games.

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